2022 forecast: How marketers must learn from Biogen's marketing struggles with Aduhelm

The U.S. approval of the first new Alzheimer’s disease (AD) drug in nearly two decades caused a major boon in research, but, for marketers, the fallout from Biogen’s FDA green light for Aduhelm has put a major dampener on the party. 

This should all be a cautionary tale for Eli Lilly and Roche, two other Big Pharmas with similar AD drugs in the pipeline, and both of which, after Aduhelm, could also get their drugs donanemab and gantenerumab, respectively, approved in the U.S.

Any approval will be some time off, but marketing plans start early. What we know is that pricing will be a key concern, but so too will be just how to market new AD drugs; Biogen had a perfect storm of issues, but Lilly and Roche won’t be immune to this.

Lilly is doing an actual head-to-head against Aduhelm with donanemab; a clear win here is a clear win for the marketing team A clear loss, or a complex draw, makes things much tougher. Lilly is also expected to finish of its confirmatory trial for its drug in 2023, proving to the FDA it can help AD patients; Biogen isn't expected to get its done until 2026, so Lilly has an advantage here, too.

Neither Lilly nor Roche wanted to talk about their campaigns, not surprising given that their meds are still experimental and they don’t want their plans public ahead of time, but several top execs at leading marketing firms told Fierce Pharma Marketing that engagement with doctors and patients can be a double-edged sword.

In one way, it’s the biggest boon for marketing: Having engaged customers who know your brand and your story is the goal of pharma marketing, but when your customers know everything, the good and the bad, in minute detail, and when it makes mainstream news, like Aduhelm, it can come back to bite.

The unexpected approval of Aduhelm in the spring of 2021 led to a flurry of ads from Biogen for Jim and Jane, the two central characters in a campaign is designed to prompt people to screen for early Alzheimer's symptoms or mild cognitive impairment.

In the summer, this campaign was featured in a lengthy ad in The New York Times, and seemed to be the start of a slow but steady push for a company increasingly reliant on Aduhelm sales for its future growth.

This was a fairly soft approach, not talking up the drug specifically, but rather focusing on the signs and symptoms of AD more generally, following the traditional disease campaign arc.

But then they tried a slightly different tact, cooking up a new online symptoms quiz designed as a fairly crude screening tool for those who may have signs of AD, and then signposting to get further testing, which ultimately could lead to them taking Aduhelm.

RELATED: High-profile Biogen ads hype early Alzheimer's detection as hospitals reject Aduhelm prescriptions

Biogen’s ploy, targeting consumers' concerns over what could be a chance occurrence, is not a unique pharma marketing tactic. Nonetheless, it quickly drew criticism from some who saw it as a predatory maneuver to promote Biogen's treatment.

These approaches struggled to create a return on investment because of the reality on the ground: The FDA’s expert review panel, which combs through the drug’s data ahead of the official FDA yay or nay, in fact rejected the drug in late 2020, so that when an approval came a few months later, this took many by surprise.

Providers also bulked at the $56,000 price tag, a high cost that comes amid questionable efficacy in most AD patients and lingering questions over safety. It's since halved the price of its drug, and this is another lesson for Lilly and Roche.

This all came to together to cause considerable barriers for Biogen’s marketing drive, and we can see in the raw numbers how tough things are: Earnings from Aduhelm hit just $300,000 in the third quarter of 2021, and, while it is early days and COVID hasn’t made life easy for the industry, many of the challenges are Aduhelm-specific.

What we can expect for next year will be a more cautious affair in terms of AD marketing, and it will be one in which lessons from Biogen will be paramount, for itself and its rivals. Despite AD being such a major disease burden, and a drug for the disease, Aricept, being on the market for nearly 20 years, AD marketing is still in the early stages.

A focus more on patients and their caregivers, so often their partner or spouse, in any marketing campaign will be more rewarding. But, as we've learned from COVID vaccines and drugs, the key will be focusing on how well a product works. With AD, a patient and their family want as much of that person back as they can get for as long as possible. Showing that will drive more interest than relying on boosting diagnosis.